June 6, 2013

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As soon as it was announced, eyes began rolling and the hipsters started laughing and cracking jokes about the fact that Lynyrd Skynyrd are again playing Chattanooga’s biggest music festival. “Here comes Ringgold!”  “Play some Skynyrd!” has been heard a time or two in the Pickle Barrel—that well-known derogatory shout being pointed at the old land o’ cotton’s inbred, chicken-fighting culture.

Requests for Skynyrd are always shouted in the hipster arenas anytime someone wants to degrade where they come from—to shake their heads smiling and hope someone recognizes their wit and how far they’ve risen above their embarrassing roots. “Freebird!” is especially chiding—ask one of the Bohannon brothers or the folks at JJ’s Bohemia how many times they’ve heard that one. But Lynyrd Skynyrd is a hell of a rock ’n roll band. There’s never been another one like them, and the audacity with which they embraced their Southern roots was unheard of in when they first appeared. The group arose from a prevailing attitude in popular music epitomized when Billie Holiday sang: 

Southern trees bear a strange fruit/Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze/Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees

When Lynyrd Skynyrd arrived, the South was still being depicted as a bizarre, bloody land peopled by a race of hateful, backwoods cotton farmers. Bob Dylan sang “Oxford Town,” where everybody had “their heads bowed down” in shame. Neil Young sang “Alabama” and “Southern Man.” None of these songs named names—they pointed their finger at the entire South. Neil Young’s cross-burning “Southern Man” was every man.

Then Lynyrd Skynyrd came along. These boys didn’t give a damn—they sang “Sweet Home Alabama” and told Neil Young he should remember that a “Southern man don’t need him around anyhow.” They sang “Mississippi Kid,” about having pistols in their pockets and not looking for trouble “but nobody dogs me around.” Lynyrd Skynyrd stepped up and confronted the cultural bully and made Southern folks proud to be Southern again. They meant something to a lot of people—and they gallantly warned Neil Young that “down in Alabama you can run but you sure can’t hide.”

And then, of course, there’s “Freebird”—the Southern anthem. I have a peculiar memory attached to that song.

When I was a boy I spent a lot of time running around north Georgia back roads. I rode with this man named Tim Blair. He was a rough, mean bastard that got backwoods respect everywhere he went. I was on a Kerouac kick back then and had read “On the Road” more than once. There were a few lines from the book in particular that got me close to home. “We got out of the car for air,” he wrote, “and suddenly both of us were stoned with joy to realize that in the darkness all around us was fragrant green grass and the smell of warm waters. ‘We’re in the South! We’ve left the winter!’ I took a deep breath; a locomotive howled across the darkness. I took off my shirt and exulted.” 

My Kerouac obsession knew no bounds—I was too young to follow his trail all the way to New Orleans but I was following Tim Blair around to find the angel-headed hipsters that were surely beating around in my neck of the woods. But I didn’t find angels with Tim. I found yard birds picking through the dirt. He took me to indoor dog fights in bloody living rooms. I heard whispers of murders at the dog fights—of men being chopped up and fed to the hogs. I didn’t see the fruit but I saw Billie Holiday’s strange trees. I could see how the crosses could catch fire. 


June 6, 2013

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